'Madden NFL 13' redesigns passing game

With over 430 new catch animations, receivers like Larry Fitzgerald are going to rule "Madden 13." EA Sports

Inside the 5-yard line, Drew Brees sits back in the shotgun and barks signals to his offense, sending tight end Jimmy Graham in motion and setting up one-on-one coverage on the far side of the field. Announcers Phil Simms and Jim Nantz see what’s coming, with Simms telling the audience to watch out for Graham as Brees hikes the ball, then immediately lobs his pass to the far corner, leading his receiver up and away with a perfect strike. Graham leaps up and snags the score before the defender can even turn around to track the spiral heading in his direction.

This is what “Madden 13” is all about, redefining the gameplay thanks to a drastic redesign of the passing game, including everything from the way a quarterback drops back in the pocket, to the trajectory of the pass, to the elimination of psychic defenders who have ruled the cyber fields of “Madden” for years with some of the most incredible (not to mention, completely blind) pass deflections from all over the field.

Check the first paragraph again. How many gameplay differences can you name?

Time to run through the list with a little more detail.

First off, you have Brees in the shotgun down by the goal line. This is thanks to a drastically needed upgrade to each team’s playbooks in order to follow more closely the shift to the shotgun and spread offenses by teams like the Saints. In real life, Brees has no problem lining up in shotgun around the goal line, but in past “Madden” games, if you were playing against the computer Saints, they never did it. This year, the computer is finally running the plays and formations you’d expect in certain situations (two-minute, goal-line, conserve time) in order to take advantage of mismatches, like that beast out at tight end who can post-up defenders in the end zone before dunking his touchdown ball through the uprights.

And to help players like Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Calvin Johnson, who are redefining what it means to catch balls in traffic, the “Madden” producers have added more than 430 new catch animations into the game. Everything from one-handed snags a la Brandon Lloyd to back-shoulder grabs by Greg Jennings along the sideline are now featured in the game, and after playing a few quarters of the latest build, I have to say, the catch animations are so much smoother (and without players warping to the ball), it really makes a significant difference to the overall feel of the game.

But don’t think the producers stopped with the catch, as everything leading up to that amazing dive across the middle has also been redesigned.

First thing you’ll notice upon hiking the ball is there are now more than 20 new quarterback drop-back animations. This incorporates everything from one- and three-step drops to five- and seven-step animations that are there to help gamers better time routes, including improved screen setups and speeding up the play-action delivery so calling the fake no longer turns into an instant sack (you can even abort play-action passes mid-animation this year).

“We don’t want gamers to hike the ball and instantly hold back on the stick to run backwards,” explains gameplay designer Larry Richart. “This improvement has been made to both ‘Madden’ and ‘NCAA’ this year, and if you hike the ball and don’t hold back, your quarterback will take the proper drop automatically, helping you time up your routes rather than just passing the ball to a receiver who has only taken two steps and has his back to the action.”

That’s right, in “Madden 13,” timing the routes actually matters. This year, if your receiver can’t see the ball, he can’t make a play, so you’ll want to make sure you time your drop-backs correctly in order to synch up all of the pass patterns. Throw too early to a receiver, and you might just hit him in the back of the head. “In ‘Madden 12,’ your guy would just magically spin around and make the catch without ever seeing the ball. That’s just how the system was,” says Richart. “This year, you can’t do that. The receiver icons are now dimmed out until the receiver is expecting the pass or when he would look for the pass in a realistic time frame. There are specific routes -- swing passes, flat routes, WR screens -- where they’re looking right away and you could throw it any time. But deeper routes -- the streak, the Cover 2 corners, the crosses and deep-ins -- they’re not going to light up until the appropriate situation where the receiver is coming up on his cut and looking for the ball.”

Meanwhile, on defense, like I said, there’s no more psychic swatting of the rock by a mindreading linebacker who has his back to the play but somehow times every pass perfectly when you’re throwing those crossing patterns.

“We also wanted to make the user-catch experience more user-friendly,” says Richart. “So we’ve slowed down the control of the receiver so it’s easier to keep him on the right path. In previous versions, if you took control and held right, he might immediately spin around and the ball would go flying over his head. Now, we slow things down, we won’t turn you as abruptly, and we’ll keep you on the right path. When you click on, your intent is to catch the ball. We’re trying to help the user so it’s now more beneficial and more fun to click on the receiver and make the catches yourself. We’ve tested this with some of the best ‘Madden’ gamers in the world, and from what they tell us, this is something that will not only help the average guy, it won’t get in the way of the expert.”

In addition, when quarterbacks drop back in the pocket, there are eight new quarterback avoidance moves that, when timed correctly, actually give your passer a special sack-breaking boost. Playing the game as the 49ers, my quarterback, Alex Smith, was about to get drilled by a New Orleans blitzer, but luckily for No. 11, I timed the movement on the right stick perfectly, the defender bounced off Smith, and I took off running for a 24-yard touchdown similar to the bounty-busting play that helped the 49ers beat the Saints in the playoffs. To see a quarterback take a hit like that in “Madden” and survive was actually pretty jarring, as in the old days, this would lead to a visit by that runaway ambulance on the field. I just hope this is tuned right, because I can already see bigger quarterbacks like Cam Newton shrugging defenders right and left and becoming one of the most unstoppable virtual players in the game thanks to these new abilities.

In terms of throwing the ball, the game’s new Total Control Passing system was actually inspired by John Madden himself (he’s more than a name on the box). “We were watching games in his studio and picking his brain about what’s happening in the NFL,” says Richart. “The main thing he stressed to us each visit, and he couldn’t stress it enough, is how the game has changed. It’s become more of a passing league and teams are running shotgun more than ever. If you watch the Saints, Drew Brees is in shotgun on the 1-yard line. That’s just unheard of in the old days of the NFL.”

And in the old days of “Madden.”

“That’s why we added Total Control Passing,” explains Richart. "We want to reflect this new age in the NFL.”

Total Control Passing enables gamers to use the L-Stick to direct passes, so you’re not only throwing to a specific receiver, but you’re throwing to a certain spot on the field. “If your receiver is running a 10-yard in-route against a Cover 2, normally that’s a bad idea and you shouldn’t do it, but now if you hold up on the L-Stick, you can lead your receiver up into space, into the area between the two safeties. Another example against a Cover 2, after the outside receiver gets off the chuck, there’s a window between the corner and the safety. If you hold left on the L-Stick, you can throw the ball toward the sideline and away from coverage to help you complete the pass.”

Also included in Total Control Passing is the ability to throw both high and low in order to better hit your targets, enabling you to bullet the ball down to a diving receiver on a comeback, or hit a taller player up and away from a shorter defender. “Elite quarterbacks like Brees and Aaron Rodgers can manipulate where the ball goes and throw it to a spot where only their receiver can go and get it,” says Richart. “In ‘Madden NFL 13,’ you have that ability.”

Adding to the more realistic feel of the passing game are 20 new ball trajectories and ball speeds. Adds Richart: “When you watch Drew Brees throw a swing pass to Darren Sproles, the ball doesn’t go way up in the air. But in ‘Madden 12’ you would get the moon ball. We’re getting rid of that. No more moon ball. Now you get a nice little pass that enables you to catch the ball, turn up field, and do your thing. Now we have different trajectories for different routes. When you have an in route, you need to be able to throw it over those linebackers with a little touch, but you shouldn’t throw it so high that the safeties are going to kill your guy. That’s not a good thing.”

Trajectory is based on how long you hold the receiver icon while throwing the ball. Tap to lob, hold for a bullet, or press and release anywhere between in order to use various degrees of touch. Playing a few games, it took me a minute to get it down, but after throwing a few passes, I could immediately feel the difference, especially when throwing to your running backs. Now you can finally swing the ball out fast, setting up your shifty runner in the open field.

Another improvement is the ability to throw on the run. Last year, when a quarterback was on the move, if he wanted to pass the ball, he needed to stop and set his feet. In “Madden 13,” the animation has been changed, and now quarterbacks can throw the ball while running, really helping add to the smoothness of play, as you no longer run, stop, then watch as the defender smashes you as you try to unleash a spiral. If there’s no defender near you, you can simply let go of the stick to set your feet to boost your accuracy, but in order to take advantage of the speed of players like Michael Vick, you’ll now also be able to throw from the sprint animation (like Vick needs more of a boost!). Quarterbacks who run one way and throw back across their body, however, will see a major drop to their accuracy and throwing power ratings, so runners beware.

“We’ve even added shovel passes this year,” says Richart. “You don’t want a windup when the receiver is right in front of you. Now you can just flick him the ball, and it makes a huge difference.”

All pump-fake animations have also been completely redone, eliminating the notoriously bad rollout pump fake where the quarterback actually used to jump and spin around before faking his pass. The animation was in the game for years and always drove me crazy for how ridiculous and slow it played out, but thankfully, it’s been replaced by a much faster, smoother and more responsive animation. On the run, pump-faking is now just a quick fake, enabling you to pump to specific receivers as you try to set up a curl and go or sluggo seam. Even better, this year, there’s a specific pump fake window, and if you time the fake right on those double moves, the cornerback is more liable to bite.

Add to that the new presentation details, from a full 3D announcers booth featuring Simms and Nantz, not to mention more than 200 new cut scenes and an all-new post-play replay overhaul via wirecam, and you have a “Madden” that’s not only playing a lot better, but the look and audio are also greatly improved. Forget the dead air of “Madden 12,” Sims and Nantz already sounded like they’ve been in the game for years, as the two were able to record lines together for part of the creation process, and were able to ad-lib a lot of their lines depending on the action. The outcome really sounds a lot more natural. The polygonal Nantz even begins every broadcast with his trademark, “Hello, friends.”

But that’s not all, as EA Sports promises some major “Madden” reveals at this year’s E3 show in June.

Will this finally be the next-gen “Madden” gamers have been waiting for?